The only thing that can make a love story more engaging than a traditional romance is a bit of music. And the cast and crew behind Hulu’s Up Here are well aware of that fact. In that story, Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes) have two very different lives, but a fateful night at a bar will bring them together, and they’ll develop a sweet love story to the tune of original songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking to Mae Whitman, the lead actress in the new show. Whitman was eager to talk about the challenges behind filming musical sequences, as well as what makes her on-screen chemistry with her co-star, Carlos Valdes, so particularly magical. Whitman was also excited to add a new type of production to her career, after being a part of different types of comedies and even animated productions.
Awards Radar: How did you fall in love with Lindsay when you started reading the script?
Mae Whitman: It was honestly a collaboration of incredible pieces. I wish I could say there was one thing specifically that made me want to do this part. But honestly, when I read the script, I just thought it was so funny, smart, easy-going. approachable and relatable. But underneath it, it has all these themes that are really important, deep, comprehensive and complicated. Like mental health, depression, insecurities and all these things where it is easy to hit those nails on the head with something very dramatic.
But, you know, a lot of the time, things don’t work like that. We’re just walking around with all of the anxieties and insecurities we’re dealing with. And we’re also operating in the world, on a lighter scale. I’m kind of amazed with how Steven (Levenson) and Danielle (Sanchez-Witzel) were able to wrtie the depth and the complexity while making it funny and easy.
It was very much in my language, and something I specifically love about Lindsay is how she’s bold. She runs into things before thinking about them. I feel like I have a similar situation, I’m very spontaneous, impulsive, brash and I feel like it was fun to play someone who was stuck in a situation that was smaller than she is. She was brave enough to take the leap without really knowing where she was going to land. That, to me, is so important. Because I’ve been in that situation where you think “Well, I guess this is just what it is. I should just give up, because it is safe”.
Some of the best things in my life have come from me jumping off the ledge and without having any idea of where I was gong to land. But I knew I would remain true to who I was on the other side. I loved that, and in comparison with Miguel, they have this really cool balance where they’re so different. but they balance each other out in that way. He kind of gives her the stability, and he gives her the freedom to be more intuitive and brave.
It’s also a friggin’ musical! Thomas (Kail), the Lopez and everyone who was involved in this, they’re literally at the top of their game in their category. That was a little bit intimidating and scary. And I’d never done a musical before. It’s always new and terrifying to do something I’ve never done before and I thought “Might as well take a shot at this because at least I’ll know I’ll be brave enough to try.” I’m so glad I did, because it changed my life.
AR: Going back to the conversation about mental health. Your character is a protagonist who constantly loses and fails. That’s not a very common thing to see in storytelling. What do you think audiences take away from Lindsay’s constant struggles?
MW: To add a layer to that, it’s specially rare to see it be a woman. It’s a tale as old as time. Things are really changing for the better with representation across the board. But I feel that it’s nice that I can contribute to show the imperfect woman or girl. The person who is always struggling. I think that my whole thing is “What can I contribute that’s honest like a person?” And I’m a mess. I constantly fail. I’m constantly trying things that don’t always go well.
And it’s so not polished, and not perfect. I feel like it’s important to show that because, if one person can watch this and feel a little bit better about the way their life is going or what their process is, that feels like the whole point. It really is about communication and, because I’m such a mess, I believe I’m uniquely equipped to express that vulnerability and honesty.
And that’s how I feel truly in my real life and that’s how I gravitate towards project that show that vulnerability. Because that’s what I feel I’m able to portray. I feel it’s important for people who have always felt like a misfit. I struggle with that, as well, and I’m still here, doing what I’m doing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think the important thing is to learn and and to try and listen to yourself.
It’s sort of like the John Lennon thing: “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”. Your intuition and who you are is what happens while you’re panicked and thinking you should try and be someone else. I feel like the more you focus on doing what you need to do to become the most honest version of yourself, then you don’t need to panick about controlling the outcome.
AR: I recently saw a massive billboard featuring you and Carlos Valdes. And judging by the audience’s reaction, impact of the show can’t be understated. How do you feel about Up Here‘s impact?
MW: I’ve been doing this for thirty-one years and I still that it is the coolest thing ever, being on a billboard. I still call my mom and tell her: “Mom! Go to Sunset and Alvarado!” It’s such a gift, treat and an honor to be able to do this and I’m really glad that they really wanted to get the word out there about the show. I feel it’s really special and we put a lot of heart and soul into it.
Obviously, Carlos is the most talented person ever and it’s really annoying. “Stop being so talented so I look better, please!” (laughs) I wish there was something bad I could say about him. But there’s not, he’s the nicest guy on the planet! He’s so talented and, I remember that after we did the chemistry read, it was apparent that he was the person for this because the important thing about Miguel is how you see the tiny tip of the iceberg of who this person is. And, underneath it, he’s massively feeling, sensitive, kind-hearted person.
But he’s built a lot of walls to keep himself safe. Carlos really had that. You could get a little bit of the vibe of who he is but, underneath it, you could feel this bleeding, beautiful, sensitive heart. I think that was one of the most important things about Miguel and he was also just such a good actor. I’ve said this before. I called my best friend, and I said: “There was this guy called Carlos, and he’s really good!” And he said “I haven’t heard you say that about someone in years! That’s really good!” (Laughs) It was really fun to act with him. Sometimes you feel really jaded about stuff, but then, a project comes along that makes you feel excited and special.
AR: You actually beat me to this question. I would like to hear more about the chemistry read! What was the spark that you guys found in each other?
MW: It was so fun! Something that you would think it’s obvious, but in reality, it’s really hard to find is somebody who is a good listener. It’s such a trap to come in. Auditions are shitty! You’re stressed out, and you’re trying to remember your lines, and you want the job. And you get so tense! I’ve been doing it forever and my neck still gets so tense for audition. It just feels, as opposed to what it should be, for us to realize if the chemistry works for the whole team, and if we all want to work together.
And also, you have somebody like Thomas Kail, who is directing you, and he’s such an actors’ director. And he’s attuned to how to communicate with actors. That’s a rare thing. He set a tone on set where we were all so comfortable. You didn’t feel like you needed to cover your own ass, you trusted everyone and you knew that they were going to catch you if you fell.
The chemistry ready was so fun because we did it in this huge studio and I remember that there was this scene where I was supposed to chase Carlos in the woods in a very emotional scene. And Thomas was like “I want you to chase him around this studio. Run in circles. You try to avoid her until she can’t let you go anymore”. (Laughs)
And this guy was running fast. I didn’t go there to run, I had to take my shoes off because I was determined to catch him. And we were out of breath, but it was so fun. My acting coach, Andrew, always says that this playing for real, and I feel like everything has to be new, fresh and spontaneous. This is something I’ve always loved and valued about it.
I was throwing things at Carlos that were different every time and he was responding and reacting differently every time, and you could see that he was actually listening. So much of what made this project special was what we were cultivating. We recorded an entire album and worked together for about a month before filming even began.
We really got to bond, all of us, to create a safe environment. Carlos and I just created a safe space for each other to be vulnerable and honest. When you have a good co-pilot, it’s so much easier. You can always turn to them and you can know that someone’s got your back. That’s also the most important thing for these characters, how they’re a safe place for each other.
AR: Filming a musical is complicated enough. You had to sing with a camera an inch away from your face. What was this process like for you?
MW: It’s weird! That’s what separates this show from all of the others. Some people don’t feel compelled to watch because it’s a musical, and in most musicals the big, explosive things are the songs. In this, the songs are the most intimate parts. The times where you get to see what’s going through people’s head. I feel it’s like an inverse in that way.
I learned how to express myself for voiceovers and other things, but this was an entirely new one, and it was another thing where I was constantly copying Carlos. I used to ask him “What do I do with my face?” And he said “You just have your face be your face”. I replied “Waht do you mean?”. And he said “Just use your normal face, for acting”. And I thought that was very interesting. (Laughs). It was very fun exercise, specially because things are one of the most vulnerable things in the world for me. I can’t really hide my emotions while I’m singing.
AR: What musical number were you the most comfortable with? Which one was the best experience for you?
MW: Honestly, I think the one I related to the most was “Please Like Me” because it is a song for people pleasers, and I have always been a people pleaser. Growing up as a child actor, you can’t help but develop the old people pleasing habits. And I think that it was fun because of the style we gave it, with the lounge act, and the disintegration of the front she’s been putting up.
No matter how hard it gets and how hard she tries, it’s obvious that she can’t get people to react to her in the way she’d like them to. It’s an illusion of control ,to think that you can control other people’s thoughts and their understanding of you, instead of looking at yourself. I remember that, years ago, my therapist told me something when I was talking about something somebody else said. I said that I had the receipts, that they shouldn’t be mad at me, and I was asked if I was trying to convince the other person or myself.
I was trying to convince myself that I was worthy, that I was a good person and that my intentions were true. That’s something that really changed my perspective about it all. I think that song was fun, and it was in my wheelhouse of that aggressive need of getting people to like you. The tap dancing act of what that is.
I loved all the duets with Carlos. Those were really fun because we really didn’t get to do too many of them. And, for sentimental purposes, the finale was very special to me, because you have everyone together, at once. It’s also the first time you see Miguel and Lindsay singing to each other. Plus, it weaves into the theme song, so you kind of feel that you know it already. I feel that one was the most sentimentally powerful.
AR: You’ve done voiceovers and a musical. What would be your ideal next project?
MW: I really, really, really hope someone is listening and they let me be the late 90’s, early 2000’s, protagonist in a thriller. It doesn’t have to rewrite the whole book, or be artsy and cool. I fact, I don’t want it to be. I want her to be a bone collector, solid ass in the 1990’s. With a leather jacket. I’m walking, running, and there’s a guy chasing me. Whatever, I don’t care. But I’m obsessed with thrillers from that era. There’s something about it that is so enjoyable to watch. Either a mystery or a thriller, I hope somebody calls me and make that happen.
AR: They will! And I’ll love to interview you about that project, because it’s happening! I don’t know who’s watching, though.
MW: Absolutely! Yeah!
AR: You’re coming back to Scott Pilgrim.
AR: How do you feel about that? It’s been a long time since the original came out
MW: I know! Don’t even tell me how many years it’s been (laughs).
AR: (Laughs) I won’t, but I was a kid when it happened. How do you feel about coming back to this world? What will be different from your performance compared to the last time?
MW: Good question! I love coming back to this role. The thing is that the roles that I do never really leave me. There’s not a single one where I feel like they’re in the past. I’m a combination of every thing I’ve done in the past. (Scott Pilgrim) was such an amazing project, too, because I’m obsessed with Edgard Wright’s filmmaking. He’s such a genius! I remeber seeing Hot Fuzz in theatres and thinking “What the fuck is this?”. I didn’t even know what I was seeing, but I was obsessed with it.
When the opportunity arose to come and work with him, it was a dream come true. And I made so many good friends during that, I feel so lucky to have been a part of it. Plus, Scott Pilgrim never goes out of style! It’s the perfect time to bring that back and, without giving anything away, you get to see a little bit more of Roxy, her motivations and who she is. Because, before, you only got to see her through Scott’s eyes. It’s exciting, getting to know her a little bit more as a person.
AR: Avatar: The Last Airbender is making a huge comeback with new films. I’m not going to ask you if you’re in them, but I did wanted to ask something more personal. What do you hope for your girl, Katara, in the upcoming stories?
MW: Katara is another one who is a huge part of who I am, and I feel so honored about having had the opportunity to play her. I’m excited that we get to see a new iteration of her. A new version of who she is. And to have actors come in, who honestly fit the role much better. I’m so happy to pass the torch on, I’m so thrilled to be a part of her growth and I feel it’s important for us all to grow. For us to move on towards things that are more true and honest. I’m thrilled to have a little piece of that in my heart, forever, and I really can’t wait to see where she goes next.
This article showcases Mae Whitman’s excitement about her upcoming TV show, Up Here, which is a musical with original songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. She talks about the challenges of filming a musical and how special it is to be a part of it. She also reveals her hopes for her character, Katara, in the new Avatar films. Her enthusiasm and passion are contagious, making us excited for her upcoming projects.
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